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Marie & Kirk in Namibia -- II

Watkins Glen High School teacher Marie Fitzsimmons and her husband, Kirk Peters, have been working in Namibia, on the continent of Africa, as part of the Peace Corps following a posting in China. They both served as Peace Corps volunteers when they were young adults, too. Marie's latest report since they departed the United States last year -- her second from Namibia and third overall -- follows.

By Marie Fitzsimmons

We have been gone from our Hector home for nine months and the dichotomy of our daily existence and the adventures we have experienced are unfathomable.

Each morning we rise before the sun makes her way and walk across campus to our staff meeting. Every day opens with prayer, and whether one is speaking to their God, the universe at large, or to the deepest parts of one’s own soul -- the words resonate with me. Let our learners have enough to eat. Let them become stronger readers and writers. Let them be serious in their study. Help us to be patient teachers and find a way to reach the most reticent learner. Help us to find beauty and gratitude in our day. Help us, as our Peace Corps director implored at our swearing-in, to produce fruit.

I think a lot about producing fruit. My love of Peace Corps stems back to my childhood where my neighbor and yours, Petie Bond, was the first volunteer I ever knew. My family loved Petie; when we moved to Hector from NYC in 1965 she fed our whole clan at her farm table and made sure we felt welcomed in our new home. Lying on her wood-planked floor with my head buried in her dog’s fur, I felt the wisdom and the kindness of that good woman. When my parents marveled at the wonder of Petie joining the Peace Corps after her husband Lyman passed away, I whispered the words, trying to understand what they could mean: Peace Corps.

It’s not that I don’t understand the weaknesses and travesties of the Kennedy administration, but I remain indebted to JFK and Sargent Shriver for their vision of the Peace Corps and their call to volunteerism. For over 50 years our citizens have served throughout the world offering their knowledge, dedication, and respect to communities everywhere. Today volunteers are health care workers educating communities to help end the HIV/AIDS crisis that has claimed a staggering number of lives in Sub Saharan Africa; they are business entrepreneurs helping ideas and local products to become a source of income and livelihood; they are environmentalists helping communities to preserve and protect resources, and they are teachers who are offering a most cherished gift. Education produces hope and possibility. That is the fruit about which I cannot stop thinking. Hope. Possibility.

Jacky knocks on the door. “Miss, is the library opening?” He knows it is opening at 3:30, but how can he wait another moment? He is startled by the noise coming from my stove. “Miss, what is that fighting in that pan?” I am making popcorn.

Jacky is hungry for knowledge. Our school was without a library for over 10 years, and whatever good work I do in these coming months, nothing will outshine the opening of the library where the kids pour in daily to take out books, compete for the use of our five computers (no internet), paint at our art center, play chess, scrabble and checkers in our game corner, or hear stories as I read aloud to whoever wants to listen.

It really is a wonder. I love the library and am scheming daily for improvements. In my final months, I am determined to find my girls more of the African love stories they are clamoring for, get at least two magazine subscriptions, and to have each teacher use the library for a class assignment. I know those are simple goals, but it is no simple feat when you live 70 kilometers from the nearest town and have no book shops, newspaper stands, banks, internet service, and such. No easy feat when your library is quite small and classes are quite large. It isn’t easy to produce fruit in the desert. But, you know it can be done.

Our first newspaper is to be released on Monday. It has been months in the making and until I see it in the hands of our students, I really won’t believe it. Fruit, almost ripe for the picking. ….Kirk’s compost project has the kids sniffing in wonder at how good the donkey manure, plant clippings, and food scraps now smell. The mixture has broken down into a rich soil and is being spread over the four garden plots that the Grade Eights will plant in a winter garden experiment. Kirk treats the compost with the same reverence and dedication I treat the library. The compost will lead to food for the body, the library food for the mind.

My Grade Eights are ever so rambunctious and I work daily to maintain enough decorum to have productive learning. Fortunately, the kids are so excited by English language learning and really want to become fluent. They love to write. My class bulletin board showcases all the writing assignments of each learner -- beginning with our very first. The kids love to leaf through them and read their work. The writing process for developing language students takes many steps. First step: hooking the kids on a topic that will excite them. Second step: brainstorming and organizing ideas. Third step: writing without inhibition; let it rip! Fourth step: reading and self editing. Fifth step: peer editing. Sixth step: teacher conferencing. Seventh step: re-write…

It still surprises me that my students love to do the final re-write. They like their work to look beautiful, and beam when new assignments are hanging. This makes me so happy. My students have all written to Mr. Durfee’s students at Watkins Glen High School in America and eagerly await the replies that have been sent. Mail from America takes at least three weeks, but we have waited up to six … Writing letters in a second language is no easy thing, and the students worked so hard to get their messages across. Each day they ask, ”Miss, when are our letters coming?”
Most of our students are in pretty good learning shape from 7AM until 10AM, but then their bellies begin to protest. The learners who live at the school hostel have had breakfast and will be fed bread at 10 AM, but the other students are often hungry and must go without food until the school releases at 2:30.

Imagine sitting at your desk from 7:00 until 2:30 without food. Those who have, bring something from home -- but many do not have. Some of the primary schools have feeding programs where the kids will be fed porridge. I wish that was true at our school. I wish it so much.

Namibia has a new president, its third since independence, and Namibians are expressing great hope for the future. President Hage Geingob has already increased the pension of the elderly in Namibia, and the senior citizens have gone from $600 N to $1000 N monthly. That is about $50 US to $85 US. Yes, that is the amount people are living on for a whole month. A loaf of bread is $12 N, so you know it is hard to get by. Even with the significant increase.

Primary school is already free, but next year, the government has declared, secondary school will also be free. School fees will no longer hinder school enrollment. Education is only compulsory through the 8th grade and our class numbers decrease dramatically each year. Last year only 16% of our Grade Tens passed their national exams and moved onto 11th grade. We have 150 eighth graders and only 18 students in grade 12. You can imagine how serious those 18 students are. You never have to tell them to work hard; they know. They do.

Namibia is paying big attention to education, and the role of Peace Corps is no small thing. The university is on a mission to produce qualified teachers, but it will be years before all schools can be staffed with college-educated teachers. Peace Corps has approximately 150 volunteers throughout the country and their work is invaluable to the children of Namibia. In the good work Peace Corps does, there are so many daily rewards ... and then there is another.

Every Peace Corps volunteer is expected to be on duty 24/7. We are expected to do our assigned job and to create secondary projects that aid the community. One might coach a sport, open a library, create a school garden, teach yoga classes, tutor adult students, etc. For each month of service, volunteers are granted two days of vacation to recharge their energy and to see the country in which they serve. Volunteers come back to site with an enriched knowledge of the country of service and revved-up enthusiasm for the tasks at hand.

Namibian schools all close for three weeks after the second term. Hostels shut down and campuses become ghost towns. The transformation can be stunning and lonely. Unless, of course, your own children are coming from America and you are going to travel through Namibia ...

The family visits

We dreamed of our entire family in Africa. We dreamed so hard that it came true. Mind you, it took 30 years, but you mustn’t let time matter. Son Jared, assistant winemaker at Damiani Wine Cellars, came for a month. Daughter Sophie, MSW student at University of Maryland, came for two weeks. And son Jores, Border Patrol Agent and high school wrestling coach, and his social worker wife, Carolina, came for 10 days. What adventures we had as our daily Peace Corps existence and daily frugality gave way to three weeks of the most astonishing African adventure. Even now, as we have said our goodbyes and reclaimed our simple lives and good work, we just can’t get over it!

For months we had lived, just the two of us, in the desert heat in our cement-block house eating our rice and beans, washing our clothes by hand, hiking miles and miles in the rocky, flat desert terrain, and teaching and teaching and teaching. The library is now humming along, the compost has broken down into the richest smelling soil, the children come for cookies and fires, the sweet young teachers come for dinners, and we work and we work. To suddenly have our own kids with us and to see Namibia -- oh, the gifts of this life!

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park shares borders with Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana. It is the world’s second largest game reserve, with 13,200 square miles. And it is not easy to get there…

We left our school with our map in hand and instructions of where and when to meet our guide. We hadn’t driven on the left side of the road for a few decades, but other than cows, goats and sheep, there was virtually no traffic on the desolate roads to the Mata Mata border crossing. All began well and we were secure in the knowledge that our guide would meet us over the border and drive us to the lodge where we would stay. We were warned that we must be on time as it would be impossible to take one’s own vehicle on the rugged territory.

Ohhhh, we were so late! We did not know about the long border crossing into South Africa, the 30 miles extra into the park on a road that was all washboard, or the hour time difference over the South African border. We drove past giraffe, springbok, oryk and baboons, unable to take in the wonder as we worried about meeting our guide. Finally when we arrived, only silence greeted us. No phone service, no guide, and the sun slipping away. Our anxiety climbed -- we were in the midst of nowhere, where only lion, cheetah, and leopard would keep us company.

Our guide did come back for us -- and my worry turned to wonder and joy. I had never experienced an open-air safari truck four-wheeling over dunes and grasses with no sign of humanity. Ostrich flapped their wings and raced across the terrain, barely missing our truck. The last of the sun lit the dunes into a rust red, and green grasses came out of nowhere as I held on to the steel bar and gasped at the wonder of it all. I had never seen anything more beautiful. It was the most magical drive of my life.

Three days in that wondrous place. Breathtaking scenery, morning tracking with our guide, meeting with the Bushmen and watching as age-old traditions unfolded before our eyes. And the animals of Africa … As we said goodbye to that dreamlike beginning, a family of cheetahs stood guard on the ridge and then made their way down, fanning out to hunt their prey.

Thus began our vacation. I don’t know if any wonder actually surpassed what I felt on that first drive, but I tell you -- only more beauty and exquisite adventure unfolded with one surprise after another, each so glorious and unique that we were speechless. We were stunned by Namibia. Every time we thought we had reached the pinnacle of wonder, another paradise awaited.

At Rostock Rock. another four-wheel adventure unfolded and it still seems unbelievable. Did we really climb over mountains and dunes, rocks that were seemingly unsurpassable and drive miles in the desert sand? Were we really gazing at Bushman paintings thousands of years old in the middle of nowhere, with no tourists but ourselves? Were we really lodging in rock rondavels overlooking zebra, ostrich and springbok?

Onto AfriCat , a reserve for cheetah and leopard where our close proximity and our open-aired safari truck had hearts racing. Oh the beauty of those cats. And then on to the place Kirk and I had longed to go. ETOSHA! Etosha is the land of dreams, totally out of a storybook -- herds of elephants splashing at waterholes, giraffe in numbers you cannot even count, a leopard in the bush, oryx, zebra, springbok, on and on. At the watering holes, the sharing of space as at least eight different species drank in the afternoon sun ended as the elephants came in lined formation and claimed the territory for their own. We have pictures and video to offer proof, but really ... we don’t believe it either.

At Khorixas we saw a World Heritage site -- with rock engravings from thousands of years past. We thrilled at the dancers at the Damara Village and watched as stick, sand and stone became fire. We wondered at the Petrified Forest where wood from the Congo flooded into Namibia millions of years ago.

On Mother’s Day, also the 1st anniversary of Jores and Carolina, we overlooked a waterhole in silent amazement as a mama hippo nursed her newborn babe. A herd of elephants made their way to drink, and the hippo and crocodiles wisely let them be ... That newborn hippo. She was so beautiful.

At Soussevlei , my stamina faltered as my clan continued their trek up the mountains of sand to reach the highest point of the world’s largest dunes. As they became small specks, I sat in the total silence and felt both frightened and exhilarated at my place in the world. I sat for a long, long time. Sky and sand. Sand and sky. And me. I was scared and I was happy. When I finally dared to move, I slid down the sand, imagining those walls of sand collapsing from my displacement of the wind’s design, and listened to my mother’s voice thousands of miles away. “Just breathe.” I laughed out loud when I reached the bottom. Safe. Alive. Exhilarated. A child of the universe.

Later, watching my family emerge, it was clear that fear eluded them. Only excitement lit their faces. Perhaps fatigue. And definitely thirst.

We traveled from the Skeleton Coast, to the desert, to the veld, to Erongo mountains, and to the capital city of Windhoek. We met Damara, Himba, Ovambo, Sotho, Afrikaner, Herero-Namibians all. This land and its people are incredible. Forbes magazine recently rated it the number two tourist destination in the world. We know why.

Back at site, adventured out and ready for the good work of teaching, Jared and Sophie joined us for a week while Jores and Carolina had to head back to jobs and home in California. What a time we all had as the two of them enchanted the kids with their gentle kindness and playful spirits. The boys put fake hair on their faces to look like Mr. Jared with his giant beard, and the girls collapsed on the netball court from Ms. Sophie’s great speed and jumping. The little ones spent every possible moment at our home where Jared and Sophie played cards, fed them cookies, and chased them to their heart’s content. They taught vocabulary, read stories, taught chess and scrabble, and gave out 150 pens to the Grade Eights. Jared brought soccer balls, an American football, and Frisbees, and the kids have been playing with them every moment out of class. We ventured twice to the local orphanage/hostel, where Jared and Sophie were overwhelmed by the sadness and the sweetness they encountered there. Children from 4 to 16 under the care of the matrons and each other. They read stories, played so many games, sang songs, and hugged the kids a thousand times. For their very last day in Namibia, they returned with the dozens of cookies they had baked, read more stories, played more games and flew a kite. It was a beautiful day. They filled all of our hearts with energy and kindness.

Now it is the two of us and the school children we have come to love. Kirk is coaching netball despite never having played, and the Science Club is headed to the river for exploration on Saturday. My class is filled with excitement as we ready for our first formal speeches. There has been such improvement in reading and writing, but having enough oral practice is always a challenge. The little kids are coming for story hour this weekend and I will hold as many of them on my lap as possible. Winter has now come to our desert home and temperatures range from the 30s to the 70s. Our cement-block home is often chilly, and classrooms can be downright cold. But you can count on sunshine almost every day. Enough to produce fruit.

Photos in text:

From top: Marie with some neighbor girls; the Art Club working in the school library; Bushman drawings; the Damara Village; daughter Sophie and son Jared playing with some children; an elephant spotted on safari; and Jared with three young men emulating his facial hair with fake beards. (Photos provided by Marie Fitzsimmons)



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